I’ll admit I was very fearful heading into Saturday afternoon’s game against Peterborough United. For Plymouth Argyle, this was to be the start of a very difficult run in which they would play four of the top six in League One before the middle of March. All of this was to be off the back of last weekend’s highly disappointing 1-0 defeat in Wycombe. However, hindsight would appear to show I needn’t have been worried about this one. The scoreline was 1-0 again, but this time it was in Argyle’s favour as they took a giant leap towards survival this season at London Road.
The game was a slightly unusual one from the start as Derek Adams opted to change his lineup, and formation, for the first time in the entirety of 2019. As the tactical preview discussed, Peterborough were likely to deploy a diamond formation, and Argyle matched this setup. The similar shapes remained in place until Peterborough were reduced to ten men on the stroke of half time. From there, Argyle had the opportunity to assert their own game onto the fixture and eventually, perhaps even belatedly, the Greens broke through thanks to another moment of magic from Ruben Lameiras.
The first half
As we’ve mentioned, Adams opted to switch things up by matching Peterborough’s 4-3-1-2 shape, perhaps with painful memories about how disparate formations led to Argyle’s obliteration by Luton in mind. Peterborough were unlikely to cause Argyle quite so many problems as Luton had Adams opted for his 4-2-3-1 formation anyway – they simply do not possess the same quality and movement from midfield. However, a change in these circumstances was a shrewd move nonetheless.
By matching up in this manner, Adams effectively created a stalemate. Against a team which started the afternoon in the play-off places, this was no bad thing – indeed, many Argyle supporters would have taken a point had it been offered just prior to kick off. Argyle’s plan succeeded in limiting the amount of chances their opponents could create; there were no significant threats to Kyle Letheren’s goal aside from a free kick from Ivan Toney which was cleverly clawed away by the Argyle goalkeeper.
The defence appeared to be solid primarily because it had sufficient protection from the midfield. As we’ve mentioned many times before, David Fox does not possess the defensive capabilities to protect the back line in just about any circumstance when he is played in a midfield two. However, matching Peterborough’s diamond had the knock-on effect of lining up with Graham Carey and Antoni Sarcevic as a pairing in central midfield. This meant that the duo, particularly through Sarcevic, were able to press from midfield when Peterborough were in possession. This protected David Fox from having to do the same. It also meant that Sarcevic, Argyle’s best midfielder from a defensive point of view, was in the thick of the action.
Presumably, the plan from Adams was to protect his defence in this manner and have his in-form attacker Lameiras in position behind the strikers to take advantage of any half chances, as he has done very successfully in recent weeks. Unfortunately, things didn’t particularly work out for Argyle in this regard. With the only wide outlets being full backs Gary Sawyer and Ashley Smith-Brown, Argyle really had no options for building strong attacks when Fox was pressed himself by Peterborough’s midfield. As a result, the game turned out to actually be somewhat dull, with neither side appearing to have the cutting edge to create good quality chances for themselves. The 0-0 scoreline at half time was perhaps the least surprising so far this season.
Again, this was not necessarily a bad thing for a team who would’ve been more than happy with a point. The mood in this regard, however, changed dramatically a matter of seconds before the half-time whistle.
The red card
Lee Tomlin initially picked up a booking in the 45th minute following a high tackle on Graham Carey. Within just three minutes of this incident, he had committed the action that would see him take a walk back to the dressing room for a very early shower.
We can see that this entire incident started with Ryan Edwards preventing Toney from getting to a pass intended for the Peterborough striker. He did this by getting his body between the player and the ball, allowing it to roll harmlessly towards Smith-Brown, and eventually Letheren. Toney’s response to this was to get involved in a tussle with Edwards, as he hauled the Argyle defender to the floor in frustration. What follows between the pair is off camera but, after what we can assume was a spot of playacting by Toney, he got up to continue his aggression towards Edwards.
What Tomlin did initially was sensible, as the Cardiff loanee progressed over to calm down Toney, a man eight years his junior. However, what he did next was stupid to the extreme. With the referee merely a yard away, Tomlin flung his arm towards Edwards without even looking at the Argyle man. This saw Edwards fall to the floor – albeit in an overly dramatic manner – and Tomlin picked up his second booking as a result.
Some may argue, as indeed some Peterborough supporters have, that Tomlin was acting as the peacemaker rather than the aggressor, moving his arm in Edwards’ direction to keep the Argyle defender and Toney apart. However, if that is an argument being used, it still doesn’t explain the stupidity of Tomlin’s action.
He knew Edwards was there, or he would have had no reason to move his arm in such a direction. However, without looking in his direction, Tomlin was unaware as to which part of Edwards he was striking. After all, he didn’t just use his arm as a barrier to stop Edwards progressing, he thrust it in the direction of the 25-year-old. Had this caught Edwards in the face, Tomlin would have been justifiably sent off on the spot, regardless of his earlier booking. The fact that the flailing arm caught Edwards just under the neck instead does not justify the action. At all.
The red card was the biggest factor in events transpiring the way they did. The way both managers reacted was telling as Argyle came away with a vital three points in the second half.
The second half
For Argyle, the second 45 minutes provided a huge opportunity to steal a victory that would have been considered unlikely prior to kick off, and even as half-time approached. Peterborough recognised this, and Darren Ferguson had to find a way to prepare his side for a more buoyant opposition in the second half. Unfortunately for the hosts, the manner in which Ferguson did this blunted them, and increased the likelihood of it being Argyle who left London Road with the win.
Peterborough’s response to Tomlin’s dismissal was to set up in the second half to defend rather than attack. They did this by replacing Siriki Dembele with the more defensive midfield option of Louis Reed. Presumably, Ferguson’s plan was to ensure that his side didn’t lose any of their midfield solidity without Tomlin. With Dembele receiving treatment around ten minutes before the interval, one could perhaps sympathise with this choice. However, if it was born out of choice rather than circumstance, this was an error of judgement from the newly installed Peterborough manager.
In removing Dembele from midfield, Peterborough lost a lot of their ability to press Fox or threaten on the counter-attack. Therefore, Argyle’s primary midfield playmaker often had plenty of time to pick out incisive passes and set up attacks. This, combined with Ryan Taylor’s presence on the field allowing for a long ball if no options were available to Fox, meant that for a long period in the second half it was only the visitors who looked likely to score the winning goal.
However, from this position of ascendancy, Argyle threatened to throw it away. In taking Taylor off the field with around 15 minutes to play, Adams and his side lost one of their primary methods of attack. Logically, Adams was perhaps thinking that his side could take advantage of the disparate formations caused by Luke Jephcott’s introduction with the opposition short of numbers.
This may have worked had Ladapo rather than Taylor made way, but with Ladapo remaining on the field, long balls generally had to be aimed at him. This was always likely to be a fruitless strategy, and the end result was that Peterborough had more of all the ball. This made the chances each side were able to create fairly even and, if the hosts had been more accurate with some of their second half headers, they may well have overcome their numerical disadvantage and stolen the points.
Luckily, this didn’t come back to bite Argyle, and we can thank one man for that: Ruben Lameiras. Let’s take this opportunity to have a look at his 88th minute winner.
This really was a true moment of genius from Argyle’s Portuguese wizard. The ball came to him via Joe Riley’s deflected cross and, despite controlling the ball initially, Lameiras still had to strike it whilst it was airborne. However, this ended up not being a problem, as Lameiras curled the ball tantalisingly out of the reach of goalkeeper Conor O’Malley and into the side of the netting.
It’s a chance that, had the player tried 100 times, he would be unlikely to catch it quite as sweetly as he did in the game. Argyle, therefore, should perhaps be cautious of relying on their ability to take these half chances going forward. However, on Saturday that didn’t matter. Lameiras got it right when it counted, and the three points make the path to survival look much less treacherous.
A game of two halves – such an obvious cliché, but one here that was mainly true. For the first half, Peterborough were the better side but found themselves unable to break through an Argyle side set up to contain them and look for chances on the break. Tomlin’s justified red card changed the respective attitudes of the two sides, and whilst the substitution of Taylor was an inaccuracy from Adams, Argyle found a way to leave with all three points.
The result means that Argyle find themselves four points clear of the relegation zone, and top of the League One form table in 2019 as the Greens prepare for the visit of high-flying south coast rivals Portsmouth on Saturday. It’s hard not to be intrigued at the very least by that prospect.